The Volksoper Wien’s first-rate production of “Die Csárdásfürstin” (“The Csárdás Princess”) offers a rare chance to waltz through one of operetta’s most tuneful hits. Emmerich Kálmán’s score, to a libretto by Béla Jenbach, is a frothy concoction of romance, hedonism, and too much time spent in nightclubs. One of the most popular of so-called twentieth-century “Silver Age” operettas (you may recognize the csárdás “Heia in den Bergen” from its renditions by Anna Netrebko), it mixes Hungarian, Viennese, and then-fashionable dance numbers to delicious effect. Errant aristocrat Edwin loves cabaret star Sylva Varescu, but is plucked from the Budapest Orpheum by his stern father to serve in the army, and, seemingly more importantly, marry his socially-acceptable cousin Stasi. Sylva and Edwin’s friend Boni follow Edwin to Vienna, and, naturally, complications ensue. By the end of the third act all are happily paired off.

© Dimo Dimov/Volksoper Wien
© Dimo Dimov/Volksoper Wien

But a shadow hangs over the action: “Die Csárdásfürstin” was written in 1914, in the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was Vienna’s biggest operetta success of the entire World War I period, and remains Hungarian composer Kálmán’s greatest hit. Seen in this context, the characters’ tunnel-visioned gaiety in the face of an uncertain future takes on a sinister cast. Edwin’s relationship with a so-called “Tingel-Tangel-Dame” is out of bounds only according to social mores that all the characters finally realize are outmoded. “Who knows how long much longer the world will turn, tomorrow could be too late!” they proclaim. Who knows, indeed. In retrospect, the operetta seems to be peering into an abyss, frantically trying to enjoy one last party before the apocalypse. Almost every song, bouncy and catchy, is an ode to pleasure, to forgetfulness, to living in the moment.

But other than Edwin’s army uniform, the Volksoper’s cheery production mostly avoids this dark background in favor of providing guiltless pleasure for today’s audience, and does so quite successfully. Kálmán’s colorful music has been cut and rearranged a bit, pumping up the dance numbers and adding spectacle in the style of a latter-day revue. The dancers of the Orpheum turn up at every opportunity for high kicks. These big production numbers were entertaining and very well staged, but sometimes they threaten to take over the first act, and the plot took a little while to get going. But once the excellent cast wrested the action back from the dancing girls, things improved.

Performing operetta requires a demanding skill set: vocal ability (the orchestra is large and the singers are not amplified), acting skills, some dancing, and, most importantly, personality. The Volksoper is the only theater in Vienna specializing in operetta, and has excelled at casting. In the title role Ingeborg Schöpf perhaps lacked a touch of mysterious allure, but her down-to-earth Sylva was endearing, sympathetic, and strongly sung, particularly in her second solo number, “O jagd’ dem Glück.” Promising baritone Dominik Köninger sang the baritenor role of Edwin with a wonderfully rich voice, and after a stiff start proved an adept actor. But the show was nearly stolen by Elisabeth Schwarz, a Volksoper ensemble member whose soubrette portrayals are one of the house’s most reliable treats. As the put-upon Stasi, she combined charm, humor, and a perfect sense of irony with a clear, bright voice. Jeffrey Treganza dispatched Boni’s dance numbers with agility, even keeping up with the impressive kick line, and delivered the dialogue with élan.

Rudolf Bibl’s conducting kept Kálmán’s turbulent rhythms spinning, and the Volksoper orchestra played with enthusiasm. This happy production sometimes felt oversimplified, missing the current of irony and regret that courses through sadder numbers like Edwin and Sylva’s “Weiss’ du es noch.” Operetta, once a popular, of-the-moment popular entertainment, is now a simpler, more nostalgic pleasure. But the Volksoper’s production still grips the heart and feet, and allows a glimpse into a world that has in fact vanished.

Visitors should note that the Volksoper performs operettas with surtitles in English that provide the text of the songs as well as a paraphrased version of the dialogue (unfortunately missing most of the jokes).